Did Beliefs in Witches Really Decline in the Eighteenth Century?

Witch trials in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have become rather famous: they have become a part of popular culture and have been researched with interest due to, what some historians label, the  ‘witch craze’ that occurred during these particular centuries. Why was a belief in witchcraft and magic so strong? Why did so many people suspect and accuse others of witchcraft? Why did it last so long? Why did people admit to being witches? And, why, did this mass ‘witch craze’ end? All these questions have been studied and discussed in-depth and with major contention, but it is the last question I wish to focus on. With the dawn of the eighteenth century, there was a growth in the ideas of ‘progress’ and ‘Enlightenment’, culminating in the Act of 1736, which criminalised the accusation of witchcraft. It is often assumed and rarely discussed until recently that people across Europe merely stopped believing in witches, which seems unlikely considering the scale on which it had once been so strongly believed. Beliefs in witchcraft and folk magic did not disappear after the Act of 1736. Before it was in place, witchcraft was deemed a statutory offence, and afterwards was no longer a criminal act but ‘an offense against the country’s newly enlightened state’. This moved the fight away from evils of witchcraft to the evils of ignorance and superstition, and their influence on the uneducated masses. Although many of the educated elites no longer believed witches existed in their time, there were still lasting beliefs amongst the labouring classes, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that magic was still prevalent. In this blog post, I will be looking at how these beliefs continued in eighteenth-century England and why there wasn’t such a strong decline in witchcraft during this time as has previously been assumed.

Beliefs in the Eighteenth Century

Up until the late twentieth century, it was generally agreed amongst historians that the Act of 1736 caused a decline in witch- and magic-beliefs, due to an increase in rational thought and enlightenment. It was generally accepted that after the witch-craze of the previous two centuries, the eighteenth century saw a major decline in these beliefs until they became only a memory. Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic was heralded as an innovative outlook into witchcraft through his uses of sociology and anthropology. He recognises the continuing beliefs in rural society after 1736, but otherwise largely ignored the period afterward, citing the decline of magic as a result of rational thought and enlightenment. However, his use of sociology and anthropology have provided new analyses into the study of popular beliefs and culture became a part of the historical study of magic, especially concerning viewing society from a bottom-up approach that discussed the labouring classes’ beliefs and role in the witch-craze. After all, most of our sources on beliefs and witches come from the literate and educated classes, which vastly ignores a large proportion of labouring and rural classes in the eighteenth century.

One of the leading historians at observing beliefs after 1736 has been Owen Davies, whose work on witchcraft, cunning-folk and magic has even spanned into twentieth-century beliefs. Arguing against earlier historians, Davies claims that for many, witches were a reality in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, just as in the early modern period. Davies gave a very different sense of the late period, with the development of the theory that beliefs in magic did not just survive after 1736, but evolved with society as well. This is demonstrated through explanations for beliefs in rural society and continuing discussion amongst elites. David Vincent agrees with this summation of evolving beliefs, referring to the early modern belief of a witch as old and poor, which remained a stereotype of those who were blamed for misfortunes into the late nineteenth century. This traditional view, therefore, that old, poor women were witches transcended into the enlightened and modern eras of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century society. Enlightenment did not eliminate beliefs of witchcraft in elite society, but the beliefs developed alongside the changes in society and due to pressures from the educated masses. Jonathan Barry has also researched the area of witchcraft beliefs post-1736, and he emphasises the importance to distinguish between ‘public’ and ‘private’ belief. His claim is that there must have been internalised struggles amongst the elite concerning new, enlightened ideas about magic, and personal beliefs would therefore have not been suitable for sharing in public. Davies agrees, claiming that the idea of rationalism and enlightenment misleadingly generalised the elite’s belief in witchcraft, explaining it was more of a subtle than suggested change. In fact, it is now argued that educated elites believed that magic and witches were prevalent in the past, but by the end of the seventeenth century no longer existed. This is demonstrated by increasing claims that the elite still discussed the existence of witchcraft in private, although it was publicly seen as superstitious. For example, in 1762, a contributor to the Gentlemen’s Magazine discussed a recent visit to a tavern, where there were ‘many gentlemen discoursing about several matters… disputing about the existence and nature of conjuring and witchcraft, which some affirmed and some denied’. It is from looking at sources such as these, after the Act of 1736, and at elite and lower society, that historians like Davies and Barry have been able to analyse and draw new conclusions and insights into what is known about popular magic beliefs in the long eighteenth century. This has been able to demonstrate their claim the history of witchcraft is not just about the past, but observing how the past is constantly being reinterpreted.

The History of the Labouring Classes

However, it could be claimed that the belief in magic did not necessarily reflect in belief in witches in society. Their counterparts, or those seen as the ‘white witches’ opposed to the maleficent ‘black witches’ of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were arguably incredibly common in England, especially in rural society. Elites also began to see white witches as an object of amusement in the eighteenth century. Men and women known as cunning-folk, Davies argues, were individuals in society that stood out for possessing more knowledge than the people around them, often assumed to be acquired from a supernatural source. Historical studies on magic have previously ignored the existence and role of cunning-folk to a large extent, due to a preference over the study of witch-trials and of ‘high magic’ such as magicians and early science. Davies claims the study of cunning-folk owes a lot to the work of Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane, citing Thomas as the first historian to recognise fully the importance and significance of cunning-folk in early modern society. Davies claims there is an importance in the study of cunning-folk as it can aid learning about what is known concerning culture and society, which Vincent agrees with stating that whereas witchcraft could only survive in isolated neighbourhoods, cunning-folk flourished in large constituencies and were not only restricted to rural society.

Previous historians’ work on witchcraft before the 1970s, such as Hugh Trevor-Roper, had focused on the role authority had on the belief in magic. However, looking at witchcraft and magic from a bottom-up approach has allowed for research amongst members of society that were previously ignored. For instance, Davies comments on how the study of cunning-folk is assisted by looking at labouring classes in society, due to the fact that the opinions of elites did not necessarily reflect contemporary popular beliefs. He claims that it must be taken into account how those who viewed cunning-folk positively were usually those who were their satisfied customers, who were usually illiterate or, if educated, did not want to be seen as associated with cunning-folk. By only looking at the accounts and opinions of elites, who saw cunning-folk as negatively or wrote them off as merely feeding off superstition, the picture of popular beliefs is only a partial one, only focusing on one part of society. Therefore, what is known about cunning-folk is based mainly on this bottom-up approach. Although there is less source material available, Davies’s work has found that clients of cunning-folk differentiated them from witches and maleficent magic, but still viewed them with reservations as there was still a major belief that magic could be used for bad as well as good.

It is highly probable therefore that beliefs in witches still existed in England beyond the Act of 1736 as ideas of enlightenment and progress so prevalent in the elite and educated classes did not make its way down through to the labouring classes or the uneducated. As these beliefs were prevalent over such a long time and in the mainstream it would have been impossible for all beliefs to merely stop, even in elite society. Superstitions continued but were not believed in public amongst the elite and those same superstitions remained in rural, more isolated areas. Its popularity and the belief in magic is also reflected in the sales of almanacs used for fortune-telling, and chapbooks which told stories of famous (real or fictional) witches. The idea of magic and witches continued well into the nineteenth and even twentieth and twentieth centuries. Superstitions themselves have also evolved with the times, and beliefs in ghosts, the supernatural and paranormal and aliens are hugely prevalent in society even today. It is therefore important to remember that the way society’s view the world cannot be entirely controlled by laws and such ideas of progress and enlightened education.

Further Reading

Jonathan Barry, Witchcraft and Demonology in South-West England, 1640-1789 (Basingstoke, 2012).

Owen Davies, Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History (London, 2003).

Owen Davies, Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736-1951 (New York, 1999).

Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England (London, 1971).

David Vincent, Literacy and Popular Culture: England 1750-1914 (Cambridge, 1989).


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